“Our story is both terrible and shockingly commonplace.”
These are the words Scott Borden, a current Pennington resident, used to open the panelists’ portion of an opioid awareness event that took place on April 19 at Hopewell Valley Central High School.
The event, entitled “The Opioid Crisis, Is It Here?” was organized by the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance. On the panel were Hopewell Valley residents, a juvenile detective and a recovery advocate who either work with or have been personally affected by opioids and drug addiction.
“We are trying to bring awareness to the community and to offer the resources available,” said Heidi Kahme, coordinator of the municipal alliance, before the event. “The opioid crisis is a national epidemic. We have to understand this issue has no socioeconomic boundary. It does not discriminate. We have to do better and by bringing this education and public awareness to our community, it is a start.”
Speakers were introduced by Alicia Cook, an award-winning New Jersey-based author and activist who herself lost a close relative to opioid addiction.
“Heroin is the worst thing that has happened to me,” Cook said. “Heroin has taken so much from me over the years: time I can’t ever get back, people I’ll never see again and memories I never had the chance to make.
“And the craziest part of all this is that I’ve never used heroin myself. I’ve never touched heroin, but I’ve loved someone who did.”
Opioids are drugs that affect the central nervous system of its users. Prescription drugs (like oxycodone and hydrocodone), fentanyl and heroin are several examples. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, these drugs not only provide pain relief but produce “euphoria” that can lead to dangerous consequences when misused.
‘No one is above being affected by this. It is in every neighborhood. It seeps into every household.’
Cook said opioid overdose is the number one cause of accidental death in New Jersey. Six residents die from opioid-related causes every day at a rate that is three times the national average.
Death, however, is but one of the many painful consequences of addiction. What often starts off as a reliance on prescription drugs or substances like alcohol and marijuana often leaves irreversible impacts on families across the county, which is why opioid addiction is often referred to as a “family disease.” Moreover, perhaps the most insidious and dangerous reality of opioids is that they do not discriminate.
“No one is above being affected by this,” Cook said. “It is in every neighborhood. It seeps into every household no matter the religion, income or how great the school system is; no matter if it’s a one parent household or a truly nuclear family; no matter if there is a history of drug addiction in that family or not.
“Addiction has such a large ripple effect and collateral damage is immense.”
In a brave and visceral illustration of the opioid crisis here in the Hopewell Valley, the panelists at the event shared personal stories of how opioids have affected not only their lives, but also the lives of their loved ones.
* * * * *
Jane and Scott Borden had an “idyllic” life in Pennington before their older son got involved with opioids at the age of 15. When the conventional mechanisms for controlling teenagers — like grounding their son and taking away his cell phone — didn’t work, they knew that something was wrong.
“We started to see alcohol abuse, use of pot, more agitated states and longer sleep,” Scott said, referring to his son. “Jane and I frankly didn’t know what to do.”
Eventually, the couple discovered that their son had developed an addiction to opioids. He spent 30 days doing rehabilitation at the beginning of his senior year at HVCHS. Unfortunately, their son had to leave the program and subsequently started a new wilderness treatment program in the mountains of Utah, before moving to a halfway house in New Hampshire.
“We soon came to the rather sad realization that our son was not going to be able to live with us anymore,” Scott said. “And that is perhaps the worst realization you can come to as a parent.”
Thankfully, after years of support and various rehabilitation programs, Scott and Jane’s son has now been sober for five years.
“We’re here to say to anyone that there’s hope in this process,” Scott said. “There’s a lot of people and resources [that offer] help.”
* * * * *
‘I look back and it never occurred to me that there could be consequences. The more I gave into it, the more I gave up.’
Eric Gallucci, a 2013 alumnus of HVCHS, grew up in Montgomery County. He and his family eventually moved to Hopewell when the consequences of his opioid addiction made him “no longer welcome” at his old school.
“I look back and it never occurred to me that there could be consequences,” he said. “The more I gave into it, the more I gave up.”
Eric was first exposed to opioids as a young teenager. The depiction of substance usage in the media was significant in the development of his addiction, which eventually led him to the police station when he was just 15.
“It’s attractive, it’s available and growing up I thought that was what I was supposed to do,” Eric said. He said that as a teen he experienced a party culture that glorifies drug and alcohol abuse.
“That was my gateway into that lifestyle. It wasn’t homelessness, it wasn’t handcuffs, it wasn’t consequences— it was fun,” he said.
His recovery process began five years ago in his high school counselor’s office. With the support of several resources, including the school and Mercer County Probation, Eric eventually completed an anonymous “12-step program” — a popular opioid use rehabilitation method — and participated in several outpatient programs.
“I’m thankful that recovery was presented to me,” he said. “I believe that I couldn’t have saved myself.”
* * * * *
Christina Grammar, a Hopewell resident, refused opioids after her most recent back surgery. What may initially seem like a small gesture was in fact a brave move after months of struggling with addiction to pain medication.
“I’m very thankful to be here today because I should not be here today,” she said.
Her addiction began in 2017 after she broke her wrist and cracked several discs in her neck while doing CrossFit. What was supposed to be an hour and a half-long surgery became an eight-hour process that left her in great pain.
“For five months, every 6 hours I popped an oxycodone,” she said. “I started thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to have to start weaning myself off of these’ and I couldn’t. Every time I did I felt like I’d been dragged behind somebody’s truck. My body hurt that bad.”
She only realized her addiction three months into her routine. In an unfortunate turn of events, she fell and broke two discs in her lower back — an accident that made weaning off the medication even harder.
The greatest pain, however, hit on a December night when a traumatic family situation made Christina consider taking her own life. The availability of her pain medication played a significant role in what was to follow.
“My pills, they basically told me ‘you don’t have to deal with this,’” she said. “Coincidentally my prescription was filled that day, so there were 120 pills. I swallowed every single one of them in two swallows.”
Christina was immediately rushed to the ICU where she was revived. Soon after, she was transferred to a regular hospital before starting rehabilitation for her addiction.
She recalls one of the most difficult parts of the process being a phone call she made on Christmas Eve to her 23-year-old son, letting him know she couldn’t be home for Christmas.
“There was just dead silence,” she said. “My son hasn’t spoken to me since then.”
In light of this event, she urged the audience to be wary of any leftover post-surgery pain medication they may have in their drug cabinets.
“Get rid of it,” she said. “Get rid of all of it.”
Christina, whose cue cards were labeled with the mantra “Just Breathe,” has a candid outlook on the situation. Even if it hurts, she believes it is important for family members to be wary of the negative way opioid addiction may affect their loved ones.
“Most drugs are lies. That bottle lied to me,” she said. “But the thing is, it happens.”
* * * * *
For Hopewell residents, the question is no longer whether or not there is a crisis, but what people can do to help resolve it.
Detective Joe Maccaquano from the Detective Bureau of Hopewell Township believes the issue is “not just a law enforcement problem.”
“Law enforcement is a cog in the wheel,” he said, “and we’re seeing that we need to handle this as a [whole] community in every single way.”
‘I just want to say, keep telling your story. As painful as it is, keep telling your story.’
Earlier in the day, Det. Maccaquano — along with Alicia Cook — helped coordinate an interactive opioid awareness program called #NotEvenOnce at HVCHS. The goal of the event was to inform students about the dangers of opioids.
“Our kids are pretty educated here, and they weren’t aware of a lot of it,” he said, referring to opioid usage among high school students. “Some kids cried, some kids walked out of class to collect themselves, some kids came up to me and asked, ‘what should I do if my friend is using?’”
The high school awareness campaign is one part of a three-pronged strategy to combat the opioid crisis in Hopewell. The other two strategies are the Hopewell CARE (Community Addiction Recovery Effort) program, which gives users a chance at recovery instead of facing arrest, and the increased availability of NARCAN — an emergency treatment for opioid overdose — in police cars and high schools within the township.
John Micarelli, a representative from the Recovery Advocates of America, believes that there is an urgency to act within the Hopewell area.
“Now it’s in our community,” he said, referring to the opioid crisis. “It’s in Hopewell. It’s in the nice farmland. It’s in the place you never thought it would be. But here it is.”
Micarelli, an ex-addict who is now almost 10 years sober, recommends that opioid addicts reach out to advocacy groups like his. The Recovery Advocates of America does not charge for its services and has seen an 87 percent success rate when paired with the C.A.R.E program. By providing aftercare services, help resources and events like Recovery Yoga, the advocacy group attempts to share its most important asset: hope.
“The only thing we can give an addict — and I’m a recovering addict so I understand this — is hope. If I don’t have hope that I can get better, then I will never try,” he said.
For those in the audience, the event in itself was a powerful lesson in bravery and solidarity.
“I can see how raw this is for each of you, and how much courage it took to tell your stories,” said Andrea Kristensen, a resident of Hopewell Township whose nephew’s death came about after a heroin relapse. “You talked about how, when you’re an addict, you’re constantly in denial. Families can deny it too. So, as a community, we [need to] pull together and support one another.
“I just want to say, keep telling your story. As painful as it is, keep telling your story.”
The entire event was livestreamed on Facebook and is available for viewing on the Hopewell Valley Regional School District’s Facebook page at facebook.com/HVRSD.